The Casual Player’s Guide To Surviving The Dissension Prerelease

There’s something about the jumble of colors that Ravnica brings that just makes mid-level players freeze in weird ways — and when faced with a near-infinite number of choices to make, often you just don’t see the obvious until it’s too late. This is the Sealed blackout. You go into a trance, and awake with the wrong cards registered in your deck. And if this can happen to people who are used to playing Sealed, what hope does the poor first-timer have at building his deck properly?

I’ve seen my colleagues have Sealed blackouts. They get the cards, they get their thirty minutes… But seconds after the registration sheets have been turned in, they’re lamenting their poor choices.

“I shoulda gone Blue,” they say, fanning their cards out at you in a daze, as if they can’t possibly understand what they were thinking. “I’ll have to sideboard.”

Some of these guys have been playing Sealed formats for years. But there’s something about the jumble of colors that Ravnica brings that just makes mid-level players freeze in weird ways — and when faced with a near-infinite number of choices to make, often you just don’t see the obvious until it’s too late.

This is the Sealed blackout. You go into a trance, and awake with the wrong cards registered in your deck.

If this can happen to people who are used to playing Sealed, what hope does the poor first-timer have at building his deck properly?

As such, I’m writing this guide for the guy who hasn’t played a whole lot of Sealed. (If you have played a lot of Sealed? Feel free to read on, but this isn’t meant as an advanced primer by any means.) I’m going to assume that you’d like to be able to build a decent deck — the kind that can pull out the occasional win when your opponent isn’t landscrewed. After all, it’s hard to enjoy a tournament where every game involves you in a dead-spin loss.

I won’t guarantee you’ll win your Prerelease flight if you follow my guidelines… But I do guarantee you’ll have some darned close games, and probably a couple of notches in the “win” column.

So let’s get started, shall we?

Prerelease Preparation
First of all, you’re going to have to do some reading. Okay, you’re already reading this, but I mean more reading.

Bop on over to the unofficial spoiler and meet the cards you’ll be opening this fine weekend. Now, personally, I hate reading spoilers, but they’re a necessary Prerelease evil; you barely have enough time to build a competent deck when you do know the cards. If you’re spending your time scanning the fine print on forty-five different completely fresh slips of cardboard, you’re going to make a poor deck and lose the whole day though.

(As a side note, I am pleased to note that MTGSalvation is still going strong on providing spoilers for the curious, even after the lawsuit. I don’t condone swiping cards from Wizards’ test lab, but I do think that spoilers are the healthy side effect of a rabid and curious fan base. I personally have not read the spoiler at this stage, since I like going into the prerelease fresh even if it means dropping a couple of games… But I like having the choice.)

When you’re reading the spoiler, get an idea of which cards and colors you consider bombworthy, and which commons are above the cut. (If you don’t know, don’t worry – I’ll help you figure out what’s good and what’s not later.) But you want to do the legwork so you know what color combinations/power commons you’re hoping to get — so if you get them, you can get right to work.

Note that I said “Commons.” It’s nice to hope for the big rares, but chances are much greater that you’ll open up a set of power commons instead of that uber-previewed rare you’ve been salivating over. It’s also much more likely that you’ll run into common tricks and creatures when your opponent whips out his deck, so focusing on those will get you ahead of the game.

(Keep in mind, however, that spoilers are never 100% accurate, so there will probably be a few minor discrepancies between the spoiler and the actual card – for example, Urza’s Rage didn’t have the “couldn’t be countered” aspect in the initial Invasion spoilers, and at one point a StarCityGames.com writer misread Blazing Archon as saying “Flying creatures can’t attack you” instead of “Flying. Creatures can’t attack you.”)

You will want to bring a pad and pencil to keep track of everyone’s life total. People forget sometimes; it sounds kinda jerky if you’re used to playing with honor system spin-down dice with your friends, but at a tournament sometimes you lose track. Interestingly enough, it’s more polite to keep track.

Then go to bed early and get some sleep. Rest before the tournament is a good thing.

I will also lay a commandment upon three: Take a damn shower. The scent of unwashed nerds is strong at any tournament; the least you can do is not contribute. Yes, I know you’re tired, but spend the fifteen minutes running your pits under water.

And soap.

You’ve Got Your Cards – Now What?
First thing you do is to break them down into piles. This is tricky. Now that all ten of the guilds have been revealed at last (and you have seven color combos in your piles), you’ll want to see at a glance where your power cards are. But how?

Fortunately, Frank Karsten developed a method.

Essentially, what you want to do is lay your main colors — Red, Green, Blue, White, Black – out in a cross pattern. Then you stack your guilds in the spaces between between the main colors. It’s a lot easier to just show you than it is to describe, so take a look at a scrawled image of the Karsten Method in action by clicking this link.

He’s missing the Dissension Guilds in this shot, obviously, since this was a Ravnica/Guildpact event, but it is the way you want to go.

Now that you’ve got piles (heh), flip through each stack of colors and look for pure power. Figure out which colors have the goods (as defined below) and which ones don’t, then put the bad colors away to one side as soon as possible. If you’ve got bomb rares that can swing a game by themselves, see whether your colors can support it.

The clock is ticking. Be quick!

Sealed play is built on creatures, backed by enough tricks to force the creatures through – so you want to have a lot of creatures and a couple of tricks to protect or enhance them. The general rule is to play with 16 creatures, 16 lands, and 8 tricks.

(…Or not. The actual general rule is to play with 16 creatures, 6-7 tricks, and 17-18 land, as any experienced player knows. If you can remember that seventeen lands is much closer to the ideal, then you’ll be ahead of the game. Unfortunately, given that many Sealed novices still go by the long-discredited “33% land” rule [which would be thirteen lands] or the “50% land rule” [twenty lands], the 16/16/8 rule isn’t the greatest but it’s way better than many people’s default land builds.

(Interestingly enough, this advice is a frequent bone of contention among advanced Magic players, who tell me that I should give more complex advice. Unfortunately, experience tells me otherwise. I’ve brought about five different novice Magic friends of mine to tournaments, and every time left to their own devices, they built much worse decks than a 16/16/8. Worse, in between trying to remember what a good Sealed creature is and what good tricks are and hey I only have a half an hour, the more complicated guidelines threw them for a loop their first time out.

(There’s a lot to remember if this is your first time out. If you know better, I agree with you that 16/16/8 is a tad suboptimal, but you are not the audience for this article.

(Sometimes, simpler is better. There’s no shame in going 16/16/8 — a nice, easy-to-remember ratio — if you’re starting out. Should you have brainpower to spare, go for something a little more advanced; it assuredly won’t hurt you.)

Picking Your Sixteen Creatures:
The creatures should be a mix of small and large creatures. As a rule, large creatures serve better on defense than offense, since a 6/6 behemoth can usually be chump-blocked but nobody wants to run into it. Creatures that tap creatures or otherwise lock them down count as defense.

Your offense will consist of creatures with evasion: Flying, fear, unblockability, trample, critters that can tap to do damage, et cetera. In other words, creatures that either will be strong enough to break through your opponent’s defense or creatures that can sail above it.

Generally, you’ll have one color that has creatures that are strong on offense and another that’s tight on defense… And normally, you’d try to make the core of your deck from these two colors. But this is The Multicolor Block, and it’s specifically designed to screw with the normal rules of Sealed deck. As such, you will be building a three-color deck.

Keep an eye on your mana curve: Like all recent blocks, Ravnica is filled with a lot of very large and very pricey creatures – which are great when they do hit the board, but by the time you get that Autocththon Wurm or Chorus of the Conclave out, you may have been smashed down to one or two life by smaller and more efficient creatures. They’re not nearly as sexy, but tiny, efficient creatures like Veteran Armorer and Stinkweed Imp are going to be your bread and butter. The mana curve pretty much starts at two mana in Ravnica, meaning that you’ll be looking for early two or three-mana blockers to start the offense (or defend yourself with) until you can get your more-expensive offense in gear.

Now, there are two mistakes that beginning players almost inevitably make:

“It’s A Slow Game.”
Every time there’s a new set out people say the same thing: “The tempo in this block will be slower.” Which is a way of saying that “We’ll be playing five-mana creatures, on average.”

But that almost never happens. Draft play in particular has always been dominated by the mana costs one through three, and though in truth the mana curve has jumped a bit over the years it’s never as slow as people think it will be. The action doesn’t truly begin until turn 3 or 4 in current Ravnica Sealed (unless you’re playing Boros), but toploading a deck with big-mana spells will mean that the slightest whiff of landscrew will do you in.

Decks like efficiency. The faster you can come out of the gates, the more likely you are to win. Build your deck around a quick blitz of four-mana-and-under cards with a few pricey bombs to seal the deal, and you’ll do well.

“Don’t Hurt Me.”
Beginning players tend to think of their creatures as an extension of their life total… But you do not win by having a lot of creatures. You win by throwing those creatures at your opponent’s face.

Good players treat their creatures like chattel, throwing them into the breach on an astonishingly regular basis, occasionally taking chances that yes, there will be an uneven trade. (Nobody wants to lose a creature, of course, but it’s not like that Seeds of Strength wasn’t going to get played eventually. And better that it’s played now, eradicating a small creature of yours, so that you can play an even bigger creature post-combat!)

The lesson is, if you have the slightest advantage, you should be pressing it with attacks, not giving your opponent time to recover. As long as you can keep the attack going the next turn, turn as many guys sideways as you can! With critter-friendly mechanics like Convoke and Graft out there (and U/W’s new “I’ll stall you to death” guild mechanism), you don’t want them to have a lot of creatures. Keep up the pressure.

Picking The Remaining Eight:
The remaining spells should fall into one of two categories: Tricks to save your creatures (Wojek Siren, Bathe in Light), and removal to get rid of your opponent’s creatures (Last Gasp and Galvanic Arc). Tricks generally have to be instants to work well, since you have to have surprise value, but reusable tricks attached to creatures are generally solid gold in the format.

Removal is getting rid of creatures. Generally we’re talking direct-damage spells (the ugly Char), destroy effects (Disembowel), or effects that bounce creatures for long enough for you to sail in for the win (Peel from Reality) – but don’t overlook effects that neutralize creatures, like Faith’s Fetters. These don’t have to be instants, because all that matters is that a creature is effectively removed from the equation.

Mass removal is gold: Anything that can destroy multiple creatures at once is valuable. There’s very little of that in this block, but that just makes it more valuable, nu?

If you get a reusable source of removal (usually attached to a creature), that can be a gamebreaker; Ravnica has a few of them, even if they are expensive (like Viashino Fangtail and, um, Trophy Hunter, I guess).

Also keep in mind that effects with drawbacks are very powerful in Limited. No one ever used Magma Burst in a winning Standard deck… But people will gladly blow two land to destroy two creatures in Sealed, and they did quite frequently in Invasion Block. If you’re used to Constructed, where you choose your cards, you’re going to have to get used to the lower overall power level.

A Word On Color
Though you’ll almost certainly be building a three-color deck, do not try to build a deck with the three colors spread out evenly. That will only lead to continual manascrew; you want to build a deck that’s weighted heavily towards two colors, so you can have a good chance of drawing cards and lands in your “core” colors in the early game when you need them, and a “splash” color of three or four cards that you hopefully draw into the late game.

As such, your splash spells should be as backbreaking as possible (since you’ll be drawing them late, they should be able to break open a stalemate or destroy a pesky critter that’s preventing your victory), but they should not contain double mana.

For example: if you’re playing White and Black as your main colors, splashing for a Putrefy is a good idea, since it’ll clear out any creature in the late game. Splashing for Carven Caryatid is a bad idea, since not only is it a weak card that doesn’t alter the board significantly in the late game (aside from giving you an extra chance at drawing a card that might matter), but it has two Green mana, meaning that you’ll need to draw two out of the three or four Forests you’ve splashed into the deck.

Also note that the Signets are extremely helpful, regardless of whether you’re splashing a color or not. And time has taught us all that the bouncelands like Boros Garrison and Selesnya Sanctuary are an absolute house. If you have them in your colors, you should play them, and mere possession of a set of the appropriate bouncelands should make you consider those guilds.

Lastly, I should add that you should only play three colors. Oh, it’s tempting to try to cram four colors into a Sealed deck — but if you look at the undefeated Sealed decks of Grand Prix tournaments, 85% of them are three colors only. It’s tempting to splash Black for that Last Gasp, but making room for Black means that you’re going to draw the Swamp when you don’t need it, and the Gasp when you don’t have the Swamp. Keep it down.

Given that Dissension’s Guilds are B/R, U/G, and U/W, it’s almost anyone’s guess as to which colors will be most prevalent. I was completely wrong about the colors that were most prevalent at the Guildpact prerelease, so I’m not even going to venture what will be good here. Watch for them all.

What About Enchantment And Artifact Removal?
In most blocks, the answer has been “Don’t bother” (with the exception of Mirrodin Block, where artifact removal doubled as creature removal), and that’s still true in Ravnica. Yes, there are some mighty powerful enchantments hanging around (I hates the Arc, m’self), but most people will be playing with creatures and tricks just like you, so the chances of finding a good target for a maindecked Leave No Trace are slim. Keep it in mind for Game 2 if you see something worthwhile, though.

What Doesn’t Work?

Big Decks. Don’t go a card beyond forty. It will be like slicing off your left arm, I know, but find the space to remove those extra ten cards. Your deck will be better for it. Yes, even though the Dimir mill strategy exists; if it wasn’t a consistent Sealed strategy when you were handed all Ravnica cards, how’s it going to work now that you have only a single Sealed deck of Dimir to work with?

Prevention Decks. Never forget: “Not losing” isn’t winning. Unless you have some big, powerful creature that can punch through for the game win, don’t go overboard on the “Ha ha! You can’t hurt me!” effects. Also see: Lifegain.

Creature-Light Decks. The all-counterspell deck seems like a good idea, but you’ll still spend the majority of your time in critter battles. Don’t try anything funny unless you know the format very well… which, since you’re reading this article, you don’t. That said, you can get away with eleven or twelve creatures in Dimir decks, but that involves more Dimir cards than you’ll probably have access to.

One-Card Decks. I never built up the eight mana to play the Avatar of Woe that I got in the first prerelease, since I always got killed before I got eight lands on the table to play it. Learn my lesson. Yes, that Goliath Spider is very large, but unless you have other cards to help you survive until you can cast it, you might lose. It may well be that, painful as it is, you need to leave your huge, flashy bomb behind and play colors with a more solid makeup.

What Happens If I Just Can’t Decide?
Words of wisdom from Sheldon Menery:

“If all else fails, take your Green and Red critters and go for the beatdown.”

This isn’t necessarily the best advice in this format, but the concept remains; if you can’t figure out, pluck the solidest beef you have and plop it on the table. If you’re confused, let your opponent be tricky; you just keep popping out 3/3s and 4/4s.

A Word Of Advice For Those Who’ve Played Sealed For A Bit
Remember: there is no Guildpact at this Prerelease. There are no Gruul bloodthirst effects to worry about, no Wildsizes to fear, no Blind Hunters to clog the air, no Pillories of the Sleepless. A whole block of cards has just stepped out for a cigarette.

Truthfully, the tempo probably will slow a bit, since you don’t have to worry about the Street Fighter-like chain of Wild Cantor into Scab-Clan Mauler into Burning-Tree Bloodscale.

You’ll be expecting combat tricks, of course, but with three whole guilds temporarily erased, make sure that you’re not holding back based on a trick that will not be in your opponents’ deck. I’ve seen that happen, and it ain’t pretty.

Even if it is funny.

For God’s Sake, Ask.
There are a lot of new cards, and nobody’s really sure how they all interact yet – except the judges. Don’t be afraid to call someone over; this does not make you a jerk. It makes you someone who wants to know how things work, which is admirable and a fine thing.

The guy who’s complaining that you called the judge? Now, he is a jerk. Go beat him so hard his shoes fly into the road.

The Ferrett
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The Here Edits This Here Site Here Guy